Digressions to a Goal... Or Depression

posted by Guy Geaux on 13th Jul 2016, 6:03 PM

Okay, so this is stab number two at this particular blog entry, and the first one left me with the conclusion that there are things that can be done to make the world a better place, but I am woefully inadequate to handle any of them in any serious or meaningful way. It was a depressing day. Seriously. 
So here we go, try number two:
In order to communicate, people need to speak use vocabulary consistently and coherently. If I'm saying that a ball is a lep, and you're still calling it a ball, no one's going to get very far, are they? I have a problem: I keep beginning to write blogs and comic story lines, and then saving them in my drafts folder because I feel like there's very little that I can say that people will take as true at face value. In order to talk about things that are important, we have to speak the same language.
Therein lies the first problem: what is intrinsically important? What has value?
What motivates me and what motivates other people surely has some commonalities, but there are so many differences that it sometimes becomes very difficult to talk about society in a way that more than one addressee will accept. And that's the purpose of blog-writing, right? To convey a message to a lot of different people, and if not have it accepted, at least have it entertained. And if not that, at least have it provoke thought or discussion. Until a writer can find a concept with some universal appeal, it's difficult to say anything that won't be met with hostility before it can do any of the things that its intended to do: be accepted, be discussed, or, at very least, be understood.
Some of things my students value are pretty obvious because they won't stop talking about them: having the newest smartphone, the best shoes, the attention of a lot of girls, respect for their physical prowess, etc. (I teach at an all-boys school - yes, it's public; there's an all-girl counterpart to it.) Subjectively speaking, I think a lot of those things are pretty silly, but objectively speaking, the things that I value carry no more intrinsic weight than anything else. Many of my peers value things like family, lifestyle, health, and religion. I'm not even sure what it is that I value more than anything else, and because of this, if you were to ask me on two different days, you'd probably get two different answers. So, how can I tackle this problem of universal value when I don't even have a superlative for it in my own life? Maybe, that is the goal for this blog: what is it that I intrinsically value more than anything else. Let's Descartes this shit.
Instead of just listing things that are important to me in their supposed order of importance, as I think I might be parroting that from what I know I should find important, I'd like to try to connect it to this universal notion of That Which Is Important, so to speak. To wit, if I were to say that I find my family important, one might ask, "why?" The first and most primal answer to this is that if I said anything else, it might and probably would result in immediate physical discomfort because of my wife (we just got married, the term still seems alien to me. Mazel Tov to me, right?) most likely smacking me in the arm. The second and slightly less concrete answer would be that it gives me the greatest amount of discomfort to imagine those closest to me in physical or mental discomfort. It sounds a bit via negativa, talking about That Which Is Important, and immediately bringing removal of negative value - i.e. avoiding pain or stress - into the mix. But I'm using that point to organize my thoughts, and this is why I imagine my blog will have so few readers - it's just stream of consciousness for me, right? - and springboard me to the point that I was trying to make, or rather the question I was trying to ask: does it give me more pleasure to see my friends and family happy, fulfilled, healthy, etc. than it would to see the same for a bunch of strangers?
Well, I guess I am going to have to use a tangential bit of logic supplied by something akin to the Trolley Problem. If you've never heard of it, you can read this, or I can just ask you, how many innocent strangers would you kill to save a close family member in a system where you won't be prosecuted on earth or in heaven for having done it? Maybe, that last part is unnecessary. I'm not sure.
The point that I was getting to with that digression is that the general welfare of the human race is important to me. I don't think I could give an actual number of people I'd kill or allow to die (perhaps sociopathically, I feel strongly that those two things are the same), but again, this is going to get me arm-slapped by my wife - I think she would be content if the number were represented by a Möbius strip - there is some number out there. I have the sincerest of doubts that I will ever be in a situation that forces me to produce such a number, but whatever number it was would be an arbitrary one. Anyway, for my goal here of discerning That Which Matters, fortunately, I don't have to give an exact number. I know that the happiness of those I choose to call relations, be they friends, blood relatives, or, yes, pets, is more important to me than that of the general population. Not infinitely - which is important. Even my own happiness is not infinitely important to me. I would die, cause myself pain, stress, etc. to betterment of the world at large - people and animals. Is this self-serving because of whatever dopamine hit I might get from it? A bit, sure. But the fact that I know that I would commit to dying to rid the world of a plague or something of the sort, abstractly - who knows if under the circumstances they might try to back out later on, blind cowardice in the face of death is a truly primal force - says to me that it's a bit more than getting high on helping people. There's a hypocrisy to this in that I might die to save a population from the plague, I might cause myself inconvenience by purchasing more expensive, slightly more ethically produced goods, but there's a limit to how much time I will spend on educating myself about my interaction with the world, and its effects on strangers. Believe me when I say that I have tried. For several years, when I was living in SE Asia and slightly before that, I tried to figure out a way to distill my interactions with the world down to those that would only benefit its sentient occupants.
I wrote a lot more after this, but erased it after I got into some more tangential concerns and essentially proved to myself that there are things to be done to help the world, I am just woefully inadequate to those tasks. There's something called Analysis Paralysis - I once heard it referred to as the Tree Reaction or something like that. Basically when the scope of a vast problem comes into view, it is not uncommon for a person to realize that their effort vs the chance of success do not add up very well, and they give up before even trying. I get the feeling that this is particularly common with Liberal Arts majors - of which I am one - because we spent so much time thinking about things and not doing terribly much. Sorry, but it's the truth. If I could say it any other way and have it still be true, I would.
Then, exactly the scenario that I was describing happened to me as I was writing this: I gave the fuck up.
I resolved not to write any more of this blog anymore, today. I was depressed and needed a win in my column. So I got my wife and we went to JoAnn fabrics so that I could buy some thread to fix a messenger bag that I'd been meaning to use in the coming semester. On the way there, we were listening to NPR and heard a woman talking about her ideal feminist marriage vs. her logistically real marriage. I had explained to my wife my frustration with trying to communicate a commonality of That Which Is Important and my utter inability to do so. She pointed out that just like when I was in SE Asia, trying not to use any electricity or buy anything with a bar code on it (I know, I KNOW), in the grand scheme of things all it serves to do is make the person miserable who is living that way. Walmart didn't give a shit. The fossil fuel companies probably, I dunno, turned record profits with or without me. This is not: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. This is: we're all going to be dead a lot longer than we're alive. That's the commonality. That's the irreducible fact. Sure, call it nihilism. Putting a label like that on something doesn't make it any less true. We're all going to be dead in, like (yes, I edited this, and, no, I'm not taking that out), a cosmic heartbeat, and anything that we do in our lives is, or should be, something that makes us feel a little better about it. The commonality that all of our oh-so-important values have is that they are all intrinsically meaningless on a cosmological scale. Is this nihilist comics? Maybe it will be. Not sure.
While you're waiting to die, if you haven't seen this, it's from "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life." Worthwhile. Check it out.

"Numbers Are Magic!" or "Pi's Last Digit!"

posted by Guy Geaux on 7th Mar 2016, 9:14 PM

Numbers are Magic
There's been a lot of talk lately about words like "literally," "they/ze/xe/etc," and "racism." Ahem. Some are less politically charged than others. I won't go too far into that in this entry, but I have to say that most people with even a cursory understanding of language will admit that any language that isn't constantly evolving is essentially dead. Sticklers and elitists ignore the fact that if it hadn't been for grammar as usage, one could argue that no contemporary language would have come about.
That having been said, the whole point of language is to represent different concepts with sounds. An extreme extrapolation of this might be to say that without objective definitions, the world quickly falls away into incomprehensible subjectivity. Perhaps that sort of fallacious slippery slope is the last bastion of scoundrels. After all, one could philosophically argue that the kind of Kafkaesque world in which we live is more like that than not. I feel that that sort of language is impoverished because even the most diehard of fallibilists has to live in a world that has rules solid enough that we, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, developed to our current state as a consequence of them.
What I'd like to get at goes deeper than the political and social ramifications of peole selecting or inventing their own pronouns or redefining words to fit their particular narrative.
I'm talking about adjectives.
If that sentence makes you feel sick to your stomach, you should probably stop reading now. 
Do you remember the old philosophical bull-session question of “is the color I see as green, the same color that you see as green?” Well, verde, green, grün, viride or any of their correlaries all represent a similar concept, regardless of whether it is actually the exact same color. (Sorry, college bull session.) These sort of quibbles don't really bother mathematicians very much because they don’t translate into numbers. No matter what you call a number, it is a finite adjective. The concept is translatable no matter its name. My three is your three is all of our threes. Mathematics is, in many ways, the most universal of all languages. What makes numbers truly magical, in my opinion, is that they simultaneously exist independent of conventions surrounding them but their value (pardon the pun) is lost upon a universe if there are no beings to understand them. They are real and unreal. We define things with them: three oranges, one little red Corvette, a mole of hydrogen, etc. Those numbers are there whether or not we count them. To wit, there are three oranges whether or not you’re in the room with them. If you don’t believe me, replace that with three human beings and ask them whether or not they were there when you weren’t. Aside from the over-complicating possibility of some Cartesian evil deceiver, this is not rocket philosophy.
The thing is, numbers are merely tools that we use to chunk information to have easier access to it. Numbers are a kind of short cut. We don’t have to think of a mass of something in inexact estimations if we can count a cup of milk, seven apples, or a gram of sodium pentathol. Again, without our creation of sets, these things lose a lot of their meaning. So, I submit that in terms of definition, numbers both exist and don’t exist simultaneously. Objectively, there are a certain number of things, but if no one counts them that number doesn’t really take form. How much more magical can something be if it’s both there and not there? Do concepts exist if we aren't thinking of them?
 I doubt that any of this is forking lightning for anyone, but bear with me.
In Kindergarten, I got into an argument with a kid at my bus stop about how high numbers went. He submitted, though I cannot replicate his exact verbiage, that there was a highest number. All numbers stopped at that point. I argued the point with him, and concluded that the idea of a highest number was completely idiotic. The point stuck with me long enough to have a bearing on another flash of incite about twenty or so years later.
At some point in college, I was driving my cd player-less Camaro around in the southeastern Pennsylvania of my birth, and listening to NPR. According to the interview, and I have been unable to find the transcript since, a terabyte (at the time this was more information than was commonly and commercially available) was 1) going to be portable soon 2) enough data to create a low-quality recording of someone’s life from birth to death.
The idea floored me.
Not only that, but with what I could remember about Moore’s Law, it seemed like the sky would be the limit for data. With my tacit preconceptions about the finite nature of the universe on somewhat shaky ground because of the fact that a cell phone could potentially, one day, record an entire human life, I began breaking away at some of my older ideas: what couldn’t numbers count? And that’s when a whole load of ideas hit me all at once. A few of them I adapted over the years:
The Human Experience
Starting with visuals, because that was where I first got the idea, what are the extrapolations about data? Well, if a terabyte can hold a low quality recording, think about how many other potential things it could see. Using 150 years as a higher end figure for the human life span, intentionally exaggerated for future life expectancies, there are some new figures.
The human eye can see roughly ten million colors, at, for the sake of argument, 40 frames per second. There are 31,563,000 seconds in a year. Estimates place the resolution of the human eye at 576 megapixels, or 576,000,000 pixels. So the maximum potential palette times maximum resolution times maximum frames per lifetime would yield a numeric value for the number of things it is possible to see in a human lifetime. For the sake of putting it down on paper, that would be: 8.1741312e+27 different visual frames. From an entire life of seeing nothing but black frames to the Mona Lisa with red eyes to a continuous Backstreet Boys Show that turns into a snuff film and everything else. Everything.  Any potential frame that the human eye can interpret. What’s even crazier than that is that it could potentially be stored on a computer hard drive. The entire potential of the human visual experience could be stored.
It doesn’t end there, while we don’t as of yet have ways of storing other experiences as easily, it doesn’t negate the possibility of it being done in the future. Think about that: if the human visual experience can be quantified and stored, why not other experiences? As our technology melds more and more closely to directly being able to map and describe the processes of the human brain, there come more and more potentialities that we could store entireties of the human experience.
And to quote the late, great Billy Mays: But wait! There’s more!
Rationalizing Pi
When I learned about Plancks, and encountered the idea that space time was not like ether in the sense that it all just flowed, unbroken, like a river, but was actually more like a series of very small bits of sand rolling through a track, I started thinking more about micrology, if that is the correct word for it. We use π to help with our calculations of things that are not strictly linear or angular – and nothing really is, is it? Unless there is, essentially, a smallest unit of matter or space time, which would make sense in a world of Plancks. So, as we all know, π goes on forever from its pedestrian 3.14, right? Or does it? Keep in mind, if the world is quantifiable and numbers are a construct that we have created to make our home a little less Kafkaesque, then, eventually, when we hit a subatomic level of measurement, the very idea of π would be pointless. After all, with things like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Plancks, basing anything on a geometric area becomes sort of preposterous. Once circle is measured down to the area where it might or might not be inhabited by quarks, Higgs particles, and the like, it’s not really even measuring anything. So, if a Planck is the smallest unit of space-time, and we want to get some manner of numeric measurement from that, we’re looking at Yoctometers or 1 x 10-24. To get the farthest decimal of π, it would be necessary to look at the farthest possible extrapolation – the largest area by the smallest measurement. So, the approximate area of the universe measured in Yoctometers should give us something akin to decimal ending of π. Combining uncertainty and the smallest units of area only being in a theoretical place, π as a concept has a limit to its non-recurrence. In terms of an ideal, it does not. However, in practical, real world application, it would. I submit that to take π out any further than yoctometer measurements would be superfluous because it couldn’t really be measuring anything. That would mean that, theoretically, we already have solved for π as far as we will ever need and as far as is practical as a number.
True, it could go on farther, but if numbers exist to measure things, and there is nothing that that iteration of π could measure. Then I must ask, is it really a number at all? From the Wittgensteinian definition of use and meaning, no, it really isn’t.
And again, the refrain from Mr. Mays…
The Highest Number
Even with concepts like imaginary and irrational numbers, something is still being computed, counted, made sense of, measured. So the fact is that if the universe has a finite amount of building blocks and space, then there would be a finite number of ways that the universe could be recombined. Even if the universe is expanding, it must have a volume that is somewhat measurable. The extrapolation that came from all of this was the simple fact that if we live in a world that is in any way rational, then a highest number is probable.
The obvious counterpoint to the idea of a highest number would be similar to what I said to my bus stop peer that one day all those years ago: well, what if I add one to it?
So glad you asked, Kindergarten Sean. By means of analogy, it would be like painting a hammer. It can certainly be done, but what difference would it make? The whole point of a hammer is, aside from Wittgenstein’s use is meaning, to hammer things in. Painting it doesn’t really compute in that sense. You could make it part of an art project, or use it for some other purpose, but that’s taking the analogy off of the rails. If you can compute everything that it is possible to computer, then any number higher than the absolute sum of all possible computations is gilding the lily.
Crudely, and I am not as much of a numbers man as I would like to be, the highest number would have to be representative of all permutations of all of the most infinitesimal measurements of the universe, again, Plancks and the Newtonian three-dimensional measurement of the universe, which, even if it is Pacman-esque in its progress from right to left, could still be measured. Even if it is expanding, again, it could still be quantified, just so long as the rate was accounted for and the potentialities of variable rates of expansion.
Also, if there are different types of the smallest units of energy, the number of potential types would have to be integrated into this measurement to account for all possible combinations of the universe. The universe’s maximum potential age, from start to finish, whether by heat death or disintegration or big crunch, or whatever is next, would have to be incorporated. If the universe is never to end, which I think is, at this point, not conjecture that most cosmologists would advance, it is potential to have a constantly growing largest number, but, it would still be a finite uppermost limit on numbers at any given time.
The point, at which I am arriving, is that because the only world that we can understand is appears to be comprehensible enough for us to rationalize going to work tomorrow and choosing, as Camus wrote, to have a cup of coffee rather than commit suicide, this world also appears to be quantifiable. If we live in a comprehensible world, it stands to reason that there are only a number of ways in which it could be recombined, a maximum number. To which, as I pointed out previously, Kindergarten Sean could add one or even a googolplex, but what difference would it make? Would it still be a number? Not if it cannot be used to count anything, no, I don’t think it would be.

"I Chew Chew Chew Choose You!" or "Let's Admit It: the Hokey Pokey Isn't What It's Really All About."

posted by Guy Geaux on 22nd Feb 2016, 7:36 PM

I've written this apologia for blogging/drawing and writing web comics more than once. You could say that I am getting to be an expert at failing at them. Still, I'm going to keep doing this until I get it right, and I guess you could argue that that brings me to my first point.

In some unapologetically circular logic, I'll say that I choose to write this blog and Do its attendant comic because it's the choice that I choose to make.

Choice is perhaps the most fundamental criterion for human existence. Think about it. Without the ability to decide what to do and not do, can we really say that a being is even sentient? Sure, there's plenty of argument about the fallacious and perhaps even illusory nature of choice, but even if choice is somehow predetermined or false, the idea is so ingrained into everything that we do, that the very idea of removing choice has a punitive taste to it. To wit, choice is everything. Even if its false. We like being able to pick, and we like to be rewarded for making the right choices. Aren't all of the most heinous crimes against our species related on a basic level to choice? I don't think that it's too contrived to say that rape is the negation of choice, slavery is the repeated negation of choices, and murder is the negation of all choices – forever.

That took a dark turn pretty quickly. My girlfriend says that I need to not do that so much. It's a work in progress, really.

It's 2016. Today is my thirty-fourth birthday. It's alright, I guess.

A few weeks ago, I found out that I had a fatty mass in my back, just beneath my shoulder blade. I've had one or two of these in my arms, and they're of the brand of benign tumors that David Sedaris describes in the following scene:

Oh, that’s nothing,” Dr. Medioni said.

A little fatty tumor. Dogs get them all the time.”

I thought of other things dogs have that I don’t want: Dewclaws, for example. Hookworms.

Can I have it removed?”

I guess you could , but why would you want to?”

He made me feel vain and frivolous for even thinking about it.

Your right,” I told him.

I’ll just pull my bathing suit up a little higher.”

When I asked him if the tumor would get any bigger, the doctor gave it a little squeeze. “Bigger? Sure, probably.”

Will it get a lot bigger?”


Why not?” I asked.

And he said, sounding suddenly weary, “I don’t know. Why don’t trees touch the sky?”

This was the first one I've ever had on my back, and it was recommended that I get it checked out by a doctor. I did.

After navigating my insurance company's baroque phone system for re-finding my primary care physician (the one I had chosen before apparently wasn't accepting new clients, and much of the information on the website was 'apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate.'), I had an appointment. Seriously, four hours on the phone just to find a doctor within my insurance network who would see me. To all the people kvetching about the potentially unnavigable bureaucracy of socialized medicine, I say, it's practically already here... oh, and the fees here reach laughably unattainable heights.

Anyway, I breathed a great big sigh of relief when the doctor said that he was certain that this was just another fatty tumor, to keep an eye on it, and not to go mad worrying about it. It's nice to be told that you're over-reacting sometimes. I think we all need it.

Sometimes though, letting your mind run away with itself to that fatal place where everyone goes eventually, is the kind of memento mori kick-in-the-pants that you need to say, “no, my work isn't perfect, but I've given it everything I've got. Now, it's time to move on to other things.”

I've decided, again, that 2016 will be the year of volition. The year where I get my proverbial excrement together. I make the decisions. Finish editing one of my novels. Get on a good schedule with drawing and playing guitar. Don't waste time. ...and chew.

I've written this blog post before. I've deleted it. I've wrestled with the idea that any blog that I would put out will be self-indulgence to the extreme and unnecessary reading for just about anyone. But then again, I'll never be anyone but who I am.

Like everyone else in the world, I am playing the hand that life has dealt me. I'll get into more of what that means to me in later blog posts, but the long and the short of it is that I have some ideas about things, just like anyone else, they're probably marginally better or worse than anyone else's, and unless I am testing them against the world, they're doing no one any good. So there you are. If people are going to blog about the different types of farts, I feel like I am on pretty safe ground throwing another opinion into the maelstrom dealing with metacognition and cognitive biases.

Which is where we get to chew.

I'm not great at chewing. It's such a necessary, mundane task. I take it for granted; I'll admit to that. But really, doesn't volition begin at the things that we have to do but we can decide how we do them? Think about it, all of those seminars and yogis – they always start with “take a deep breath,” right? Well, yeah, you have to breath. You can't not. But you can opt in or out of really noticing those breaths. And I can't realistically choose to notice every breath I take. I probably can't or shouldn't attempt to savor every bite I take, but if I am going to really try to make this year the beginning of a more about making those choices, this is, I think, a good start.

Prayer before eating was a fact of life in my childhood. I'm not religious at all anymore, but I like the idea of taking a minute before each meal to think about the food. Think about how it's going to taste. Rev yourself up to it. I mean, if you hog your food down at speeds that cause you to bite your tongue, are you really even enjoying it? It's something I really need to work on – enjoying myself instead of using each achieved goal as an opportunity to begin worrying about the next thing. I'm saying this now, and I have a feeling that it's going to become something of a mantra in this blog: I'm not special. There are over seven billion people on earth, and I am just one of them. The best I can do with my life is be the best me that I can be, and I think choosing my choices well and enjoying their fruits is the best way to do that.

So yeah, while I am alive, I am going to choose to chew. After all, my girlfriend is a fantastic cook, and I'm no slouch when it comes to making omelettes, waffles, and pancakes.

Except my nasty fiber cereal – that stuff I can opt out of tasting.

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